Antique Attributions Murky Part I

by John Werry on November 14, 2009

A recent Rare Victorian site visitor, Jim, asked the following fair question and rather than get the discussion lost in the comment section of the post that triggered his question, I thought I’d address it in detail as a posting.

Q: I am confused. how do you know these are variants by the same manufacturer and not different manufacturers using the same old stock parts ? it seems that items on this site get rounds of applause for being “attributed” with variants and on other highly respected sites the items are similar and made with stock parts by different manufacturers.

It makes me suspect of the attribution and the reviewers.

Jim’s right that stock parts that were available broadly at the time across all manufacturers and that many similar pieces of furniture could be produced by different manufacturers.  This is true and creates problems when we attribute to a single manufacturer today.  Thus, all the issues with John Jelliff attributions.

Ornamental Wood Company is a great example of how these component pieces were centrally  made and distributed to many makers.

As Jim says, there are many “respected [web]sites” out there where furniture is attributed to a particular maker.  However, I would say that many do not offer the basis of  their attribution (or worse, make an unqualified association).  Some DO have that substantiation at hand and can give it to you upon request.  Some make it clear what their basis is directly on their site.  Most do not give a lick of basis.

I try to do a reasonable amount of research before I “attribute-to” or use “possibly-by” and I have put forth the CDWA nomenclature as something that I try to adhere to.  “Attributed to” is overused in my mind and there are other more accurate qualifiers that should be used in many cases.  Often, I try to go one further and provide historical catalog images to confirm a particular maker, such as here, here, here, here, recently here, and many more.

The Table At Hand

Given all that, let’s take the worktable that Jim’s question was associated with.  I did not provide the images that serve as the basis of my attribution at the time of the post that Jim commented on, but I have now done so below.

Kilian Brother Pedestal Antique Attributions Murky Part I

On the left is the Neal Auction table that was put forth as my attributed item in the post.  The central image is from an original ca. 1870 Kilian Brothers catalog.  To the far right is a photo excerpt from a Magazine Antiques article in which they identify Kilian Brothers, unqualified, as the source of manufacture.

Between the left and central images, the finials (both upward and downward facing) are identical, the legs are identical, the overall proportions & shape, the top is identical, the corner hardware is identical.  The only thing that appear to differ are the choice of decorations on the side panels.

I can’t think of a case where two makers shared nearly ALL THE PARTS  vs. sharing a select few, which I think is usually the case.  With the pride in craftsmanship that was present at the time, I don’t see a lot of 19th Century copycat cabinetmakers creating identical versions of unremarkable pieces to the last centimeter.

I also don’t think that it is likely that all of the potentially dozens of component pieces of these tables were ever stock parts – maybe a portion, but not all.  Not in the quantity that are identical in this case.

When associating Kilian in the original post, I might have more appropriately used a qualifier of probably by: “Use[d] to express minor uncertainty regarding the attribution, generally indicating a slightly stronger probability than attributed to”.  But I still think that unqualified is justified in this particular case.  However, I always stand at the ready to make corrections when new information comes available.

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